IFT takes a look at the important role nutrition plays in the areas of pulse research, food innovation and policy.

By Dario Bard

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The subject of nutrition has garnered a lot of media attention lately thanks in large part to the high-profile speakers at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), namely Pope Francis and Queen Letizia of Spain. This increased interest has made the leadership of the Global Pulse Confederation (GPC, formerly known as CICILS) appear prophetic. Several months prior to ICN2, the GPC had already identified Health, Nutrition and Food Innovation as one of five theme areas for the International Year of Pulses (IYOP).

Explaining his organization’s decision to focus on this theme, GPC President Hakan Bahceci says, “Pulses are a nutrient dense, low fat, low glycemic index food ingredient with high levels of complex carbohydrates including fiber, and they are a good source of protein. These attributes make pulses a natural choice for a healthy diet and for innovative food product formulations that meet dietary recommendations for maintaining a healthy body weight, tackling obesity and reducing risk factors for illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.”

Through IYOP, the GPC hopes to increase global pulse consumption, and food innovation is a vital part of this effort. To achieve IYOP’s goals, Bahceci envisions the forging of strategic private-public alliances to position pulses as an affordable and sustainable solution to the world’s most pressing nutritional challenges. He points to a project being led by McGill University’s McGill Centre for Convergence of Health and Economics as a model; its participants include Pulse Canada, companies such as Nestle, Ferminich, DSM and Buhler, research centers like CGIAR and the global communication firm Leo Burnett.

By the time IYOP rolls around in 2016, the hope is that such partnerships will result in hundreds of research projects on how pulses can meet the world’s most pressing nutrition and health challenges and how they can be incorporated in more food products.

“By the end of 2016, we anticipate a 10% increase in the number of food products containing pulse ingredients,” says Bahceci.

This ambitious goal received a boost from the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the Framework for Action that came out of ICN2.

“These documents provide governments with policy options and strategies that they can implement at the national level so as to improve nutrition intake worldwide,” says Bahceci. “IYOP shares the same goals and we have approached countries to get their full and active support for it. Right now, we have 30 countries that have formed national committees and are ready to participate.”

With IYOP less than a year away, IFT took a look at some of the exciting work being done in the areas of pulse research, product development and policy.

Cancer Researcher Urges People to Eat More Beans

Dr. Henry Thompson, director of Colorado State University’s Cancer Prevention Laboratory, has strong opinions when it comes to pulses.

“Pulses are supposed to be a staple food crop,” he says, “meaning they should be eaten at every meal and consumed in large amounts. But people are not eating enough pulses. So message number one is people ought to increase their consumption of pulses because it’s a good thing. And then, from the cancer research point of view, there are certain varieties of beans that are really special. That’s where the white kidney bean comes in.”

In a series of published studies, Dr. Thompson and his team have made a convincing case for a link between pulse consumption and an organism’s ability to fend off the spread of cancer. One study fed a diet of white kidney beans in powdered form to a group of lab rats that had been induced breast cancer. The results showed that the diet inhibited the spread of the cancer by as much as 70%.

This line of research has been well received by the scientific community. During the peer review process, Dr. Thompson’s colleagues encouraged him to stay focused on the health benefits of pulses as a whole food. Then, in 2012, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) awarded Dr. Thompson’s team with a five-year grant. Although, unlike Dr. Thompson’s colleagues, the NCI is much more interested in a pharmaceutical approach (focused on isolating the chemicals responsible for the cancer-fighting properties of white kidney beans), Dr. Thompson is excited about the new directions the grant is enabling him to pursue.

“There are four interrelated diseases that account for at least 60% of deaths globally: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer,” explains Dr. Thompson. “Moving forward, I am trying to understand how beans are affecting the things that are common to all four diseases. So I’m starting to screen the germplasm of the thousands of bean varieties throughout the world and looking at whether they deliver health benefits in areas where they are not currently thought to play an important role. This research cuts across problems like insomnia, issues associated with air pollution, stress and so on. We are looking for varieties of beans with unique chemistries that address those concerns and represent health opportunities.”

Interestingly, Dr. Thompson’s Cancer Prevention Laboratory is housed within Colorado State University’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. This is no organizational quirk, but rather a conscious decision on the part of Dr. Thompson to pursue his conviction that the key to many of the world’s modern health problems are to be found in ancient dietary customs.

“Food has very powerful effects on our health. I think we’ve lost sight of that. If you look at the American plate today, pulse crops have pretty much disappeared, and that’s not okay,” he says.

Fifteen years ago, Dr. Thompson, like many other health professionals, focused on fruits and vegetables. He worked with breast-cancer survivors and performed clinical trials. The results, however, left him unsatisfied. Consequently, he decided he needed to learn more about what goes into getting food from the field to the table. That led him to move his lab into the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department and brought him into contact with bean breeder Mark Brick.

“The best conversations about science are chance conversations, and that’s what happened here,” says Dr. Thompson, recalling how beans first came to his attention. “One day I’m walking to my mailbox and here comes Mark. So I do my howdy do and he stops me and says, ̒ Hey, Henry, by the way, I work on beans and I think beans are really good for you. Would you be willing to take a look at whether or not they have anti-cancer activity?̓ This was exactly the kind of exchange I was hoping for when I moved my lab to Horticulture, so I agreed to work with him and that’s how this line of research all began. It was probably the best accidental conversation I had because it turned me onto this whole thing about developing crops for health.”

Dr. Thompson’s aim is to identify the traits in bean varieties that deliver health benefits so that then his plant-breeding colleagues can improve those traits in the same way they improve agronomic traits. This is a goal that Mark Brick and other Colorado State University plant breeders have embraced.

“My mission,” sums up Dr. Thompson, “is to get people to focus on the importance of food and to get agriculture to produce the best foods that can possibly be put on the table.”

In Dr. Thompson’s view, a person ought to consume 1.5 cups of pulses a day. Doing so, he says, is easier than one might think.

“Take breakfast, for instance,” he explains. “A lot of people like eggs. So you start with a wheat or corn tortilla, spread a half cup of refried beans or lentils on it, lay the egg on top, add some sauce if you like, roll it up and that’s an extraordinarily nutritious meal that comes in at less than 300 calories with practically no fat. It takes me three to four minutes to whip up that breakfast. It is extremely convenient.”

Through his encouragement, the breast-cancer survivors Dr. Thompson has worked with have increased their pulse intake and have shared with him the great diversity of dishes they have cooked up with pulses in the ingredients list, from salads to desserts, including what he describes as to-die-for cheesecake and mud pie.

“Pulse crops are the authentic, genuine, low-fat food,” he says. “It’s so darned easy to incorporate them into healthy meals. They are the best source of fiber in a diet. And the thing with pulse crops is they don’t have much flavor, so you can add them to foods and not even notice the pulse crop is there.”

Dr. Thompson had the opportunity to share these food innovation ideas with an industry group that included Gordon Gregory, the Vice President and General Manager of Archer Daniels Midland’s (ADM) Edible Bean Specialties group. Gregory’s group has spent years developing such recipes for mass consumption.

ADM: Taking Beans Where They’ve Never Been Before

Bean chips and dips. Crackers and tortillas. Breakfast cereals and cookies. Brownies and cupcakes. Pasta and pizza crust. These are just some of the successful food innovations that have come out of ADM’s Edible Bean Specialties group during the past two years, all of which feature pulse products.

“Earlier in my career with ADM, I became very familiar with the snack food industry,” says Gregory. “On September 25, 2005, The Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper had a picture of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver on the front page with a headline discussing how Oliver had just succeeded in removing all of the unhealthy snacks in school vending machines in the UK. In that moment, we began a course to see if we could take beans where they had never been before.”

The early years were challenging for the fledgling division, recalls Gregory, but since then, the market has become tired of empty calories and grown hungry for nutritious foods. Consequently, food companies have warmed to the functionality and diverse applications that the group’s cooked bean ingredients offer.

“Today, one can see in different reports, such as Mintel, that in 2013 there were over 700 new products launched with some type of pulse as an ingredient. The question is can these new products stay on the shelf?” says Gregory.

ADM’s Edible Bean Specialties group is banking that they can and is increasing its demand for bean acres from its network of growers. The Edible Bean group is unique within ADM in that its operations cover the entire supply chain, from field to fork. It produces certified seed in western states and contracts with dry bean growers in Michigan, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, thus creating a complete supply chain. Additionally, it has its own value-added facility, which produces the various cooked, ground bean products. This has been important in winning over a customer base that wants to know where the beans come from.

“Our customers are finally realizing that they can successfully market a wide gamut of products that produce satiety with a plant-based ingredient that is non-GMO, minimally processed and gluten and allergen free,” says Gregory, adding that such ingredients also provide a cleaner label.

Gregory also points out that pulses can be used as food ingredients in whatever flavor profile one wishes to create, whether sweet or savory. With ADM’s acquisition of WILD Flavors last year and the subsequent move of Gregory’s group into the WILD Flavors & Specialty Ingredients business unit, Gregory says, “We are now even more excited about the solutions we can provide for our customers to assist in extending current brands and creating new ones.”

His group is poised to take advantage of the opportunities presented by last year’s ICN2 and next year’s IYOP. Such international events, he says, raise public awareness of pulses and generate greater consumer demand for beans.

“We all know the challenges before us,” says Gregory. “How do we, as a global community, feed 9 billion people by 2050? Pulses provide an alternative ingredient solution to address not only malnutrition in the developing world but also obesity in the developed world by offering a sustainable source of protein and fiber that is low in fat and sodium. The marketplace is very protein-focused and will remain that way in the future. Hopefully, IYOP will bring the world a greater awareness of the values of pulse crops; in a world concerned about the use of water and the costs of other protein sources, pulses offer a sustainable solution.”

Policy and the Big Picture

John Heine wears many hats: he is the research administrator at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tuft’s University; a consultant for the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization; and a graduate student enrolled in Tuft’s Humanitarian Assistance Program at the Friedman School for Nutrition, Science and Policy with a research interest in the global supply and demand of food legumes. In an IFT interview, Heine shared his personal views on a number of policy issues that are relevant to the pulse industry.

Asked his opinion on the documents that came out of ICN2, Heine says he would have liked to have seen more on pulses, although he acknowledges that the text does not get into specific food groups or commodities.

“I think the role of pulses needs to be expanded from a dietary and ecological diversity standpoint,” he says. “The more we narrow our focus so that it is just on wheat, rice, soy and ground nuts – that is all we are really developing scientifically and agriculturally at the moment—then I think there is a potential for problems.”

For instance, Heine points out that the needs of the world’s aging population (aged 65 or over)—which is expected to hit 1 billion by 2030—is typically given secondary consideration. Yet nutrition, and specifically low-glycemic–index foods like pulses, can play a large part in reducing the incidence or ameliorating the impact of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cataracts, dementia and others that are generally regarded as inevitable consequences of the aging process.

“We really need to expand our horizons,” says Heine. “Pulses are such versatile products. There is a pulse crop for every climate area and soil type. There is a lot of room for improvement.”

Heine believes that as nation’s move to implement the ICN2 documents, they will come to the realization that pulses can be an important part of the solution. There is only so much arable land, he points out, and it will become more and more challenging to continue to push yields further and further upwards for crops like corn and soybeans. Climate change will also be a factor, as growing regions shift.

“We are going to have to constantly develop better and better seed varieties and decide more carefully what we plant and when,” he says. “Food systems influence what we eat, so nutrition is going to be an important part of that.”

It may seem like a no-brainer for those inside the pulse industry, but increasing global consumption won’t come easily. As middle class populations grow in developing countries, food systems tend to shift from plant-sourced protein to animal-sourced protein. Heine notes that pulse consumption has slowed in traditional pulse-consuming countries like India. Reversing this trend will depend on market factors, such as investment on the part of industry, and on cultural perceptions, such as the stigma of beans as a “poor man’s food” in some parts of the world and the preference for meat that has been generated worldwide by the heavy promotion of a western diet.

At the same time, a demand for healthy, locally-produced, whole foods in North American and European markets presents a clear opportunity for the industry to increase pulse consumption.

“We will have achieved a turning point,” says Heine, “when the average consumer is adding a pulse into two of his or her meals per week. And I’m excluding snacks here. When people start thinking of pulses as a tasty and savory part of their meals, we will have made inroads.”

Getting there, says Heine, will take significant effort on the part of international organizations. That is something IYOP can facilitate.

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Dario Bard, IFT Journalist

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